Accented Capitals

French capitalization and accents
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Accents sur les majuscules

There’s a bit of debate with regard to accents on capital letters. Most everyone agrees that accents are required on lower case letters, but some French speakers claim that they are unneccessary or even incorrect on capital letters. Is this true? The answer depends in part on who you ask.

First things first: accents are definitely required on lower case letters. As I’ve said before, leaving off a French accent is an outright spelling mistake just as serious as adding, changing, or omitting a letter, and for me, this is true regardless of upper or lower case. Many prestigious organizations agree.*

But some writers claim that rule only applies to lower case letters. For them, when these same letters are capitalized, accent omission suddenly becomes acceptable – or even desirable. Why?

The original reason for leaving accents off capitals goes back to typewriters which were not designed to type accents on capitals, tout simplement. This physical oversight morphed into the (erroneous – or at least oversimplified) belief that because it wasn’t possible to type accents on capitals, that accents on capitals are unnecessary or even wrong. But if that’s true, then why are they necessary on lower case letters? Either you need them or you don’t – you can’t have it both ways.

Regardless of whose side you’re on (pick me! pick me!), there are two kinds of words that really want to be accented.

1) Accentonyms

Never heard this word? That’s not surprising, since I coined it. 🙂 It refers to two or more words that are distinguish by the presence, lack, or type of accents.

Par exemple…

T-SHIRTS SUBLIMES

Are the T-shirts really that special? Or does it just mean that they’re screen-printed? If it’s the latter, spell it out with an accent:

T-SHIRTS SUBLIMÉS

Or how about

ASSOCIATION DES PECHEURS

Is this a club for fishermen or sinners? Make it clear with accents:

ASSOCIATION DES PĂŠCHEURS

ASSOCIATION DES PÉCHEURS

See my list of accentonyms for the many word pairs to watch out for, and Le Projet Voltaire for additional examples.

2) Proper nouns

When writing out the name of a person, company, or organization, correct spelling is of utmost importance – and that means including any required accents, even on capital letters.

Par example…

ACADÉMIE FRANÇAISE   ACADEMIE FRANCAISE
Émile Zola   Emile Zola

 * A few notables that I can’t imagine disagreeing with:

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French accented capitals

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